John Richards argues (“Tax policy by referendum,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2013) that referendums are a bad way to make policy. He favours parliamentary democracy and electoral accountability. So far so good. But on the basis of my defence of the HST referendum in British Columbia, he then associates me with a somewhat ill-defined school (read American) that apparently supports policymaking through direct democracy as opposed to parliamentary democracy. That comes as a surprise to me.

I do argue in favour of the legislation in B.C. that permits voters under quite exceptional circumstances to require the legislature to review and revote a matter that has been previously decided. I do not consider that to be an affront to parliamentary democracy. Indeed I am a self-confessed champion of parliamentary democracy and deliberative politics. But I am open to ways of improving it.

Perhaps more egregiously to Richards, I also argue that the referendum in B.C. that rejected the HST was neither proof of irrationality on the part of voters nor an affront to democracy. I am quite convinced of the rationality of voters. However, governments and special interest groups try to game the system, and voters thus need all the help they can get.

First let me address the alleged challenge to parliamentary democracy in the B.C. system. It is true that aroused voters may, if they sign up in very difficult to obtain numbers across all constituencies over a short and defined period of time, require a review of a policy. The government must then decide either to vote on the issue in the legislature or to put it to a referendum. If it chooses a referendum the result is only advisory. It is up to the government to decide what it will do. The system is thus in effect a fairly nonthreatening “check and balance” on a government that overreaches itself in defying popular opinion. Rather than constraining the legislature, the B.C. system simply requires that any matter approved by a referendum go the legislature. The legislature is completely unfettered in how it treats the matter. Unlike the California system, which Richards seems to assume is the same, the B.C. system provides in fact only for a form of political protest.

Let me now turn to the oft-alleged irrationality of voters. Richards, like many defenders of the B.C. government, claims that tax credits for low-income voters addressed any legitimate objections to the distributive affects of the tax. However, something that the government and its supporters seemingly missed in the whole debate was the salience of the issue among middle-class voters.

In its opening explanation and defence of the HST, the government itself carefully noted that there would be a large transfer of the tax burden from business to middle-class consumers. This, it said, would be good for business and the economy. Later it enlisted supporters who drew on parallel claims made for a shift from a manufactured goods tax to a value-added sales tax, thus exaggerating the economic gains. Large parts of the middle class did not buy the arguments and they were not convinced by the belated argument that the benefits would eventually trickle down to them. To make matters worse, many didn’t think the government was convinced either; otherwise why would it have in effect lied by omission by not revealing that the tax was coming during the just concluded election? It didn’t pass the smell test.

It was among these middle-class voters that the anti-HST campaign was in effect battled out. These voters may or may not have been wrong, but they were not irrational. Many formed a rationally held belief that the trickle down and other gains would not be getting to them.

The lapse in rationality was to be found almost entirely in government circles, where the blind belief prevailed that voters would not lash out through the use of legislation that gives them a tool to engage in organized protest. Oddly enough, it was an apparent belief by the government and its supporters that voters are irrational that was at the root of the badly conceived and executed enterprise.

A small amount of political intelligence applied at various times might have led to a different conclusion. Had the government not in effect deceived voters in the election, it would then have engaged them in deliberations. These deliberations would have contained the voter revolt that eventually found expression in the referendum. Indeed the referendum might not have been forced on the government at all. And even if it had been, there might have been no political necessity to commit to a complete reversal of the HST policy. The legislation certainly does not require it. The simple fact is that by the time the referendum was held, the government was discredited and in massive disarray. In the end it was the government that voters voted against. And it was the government that had to give. The HST was the collateral damage.

None of this resulted from a breach in parliamentary democracy. Along with most, I agree that parliamentary democracy is about as good as it gets. That doesn’t mean that it must be frozen in form and time. If governments insist on taking voters for granted, it is a good thing to provide voters with tools that they draw on to check arrogance and deceit in the system. Parliamentary democracy requires information and transparency, respect for voters and honest deliberation. Even if a good tax policy measure should flounder in the face of government deceit and arrogance because of it, that is not a good argument to oppose a more vibrant set of checks and balances. The deterrent effect alone is well worth it.

Unlike Richards, I embrace the B.C. system – and thus the HST result. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder to future governments that voters can be militantly rational. And almost certainly, a government that is ignorant of history and intent on short-circuiting democracy will at some time again face such voters. Hopefully, reminding such a government of the HST will be enough to deter it.

The importance of Pakistan in the security and stability of the world has suddenly got the world’s attention. The attempt on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s life upon her return to the country in October 2007 after years of exile has highlighted the country’s instability and political violence.

The risks posed by the situation in Pakistan are immense. As goes Pakistan, so go the peace and stability of the world. If the Pakistani riddle cannot be unravelled, there is virtually no hope of stopping Al Qaeda and world terrorism more generally. Pakistan – not Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia – is the operating base for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistan is the only country in the world with a modern nuclear arsenal controlled by sympathizers and supporters of terrorists who hate the West. In any ranking of international risks, Pakistan arguably occupies the top position.

Pakistan is about to change dramatically. The stakes have become very high. The outcome is unclear but of vital interest to us all. Much depends on the West and the United States in particular. The final test may be whether there is more confidence in authoritarian dictators than volatile democrats. Put this way, the question excites fierce passions and strong opinions. Canada, given the contribution and sacrifices it has made in Afghanistan, has a claim to a say in all of this. If there is to be hope for stability and a strong offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces currently being given sanctuary in Pakistan, Canada and the West must support the power-sharing deal proposed by Benazir Bhutto. This will require robust and unequivocal support for free and fair elections and for Bhutto when she is elected prime minister in those elections, as she almost certainly will be.

The origins of Pakistan

Pakistan was born out of a volatile combination of almost equal measures of hatred, fear, manipulation and error. The British played their part by encouraging Muslim-Hindu mistrust. The indigenous politicians used mistrust and conflict to concentrate and solidify popular support for their respective factions. Religious hatred was strong within the general population in certain regions, and particularly in the north of today’s India, where there was a large Muslim population.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leading Muslim politician prior to independence and the acknowledged founding father of Pakistan, envisaged a modern liberal secular state with a majority Muslim population. He viewed Islam as a civilization, a culture and a social order, not a state religion. The army was to be solely defensive, designed to protect against outside threats, and government was to be constitutional, democratic and popular.

Things did not work out as he planned. Hatred and fear of Indians and Hindus became the focus of political discourse, justifying special measures to control and dominate state institutions. None of the elites found constitutional democratic government particularly to their liking, and most were more comfortable continuing the nonelected officials’ government in the style of the Raj. It was for this reason that Pakistan had neither a constitution nor democratic elections for a very long time. The first constitution came in 1956 and was modernized in 1973, and the first national elections did not occur until 1970.

The power of the military

One of the realities of Pakistani politics and government is the unique power and influence of the military. Generals have exercised absolute control for 31 of the last 50 years of Pakistan’s history. Their rule has often been ruthless, violent and unpopular, except for short periods in the early days after each military takeover.

The dominance of the military is virtually without parallel in modern states. When it operates as a dictatorship, with direct control over the political and governmental institutions, there is no check on the military’s ability to use and abuse power. Even during democratic interludes, it is virtually impossible for governments to impose their will on the military if it resists. Nothing important in Pakistan can be considered without senior military leaders being involved. During the short periods when democratic rule has prevailed, as in the 1990s, the military used influence, intimidation and corruption rather than direct authority over state institutions, but it was still the ultimate authority. Political leaders are always just one arrest way from loss of office, and perhaps their lives. Every democratically elected leader has had to learn this lesson, often in very hard ways.

President and Chief of the Army, General Pervez Musharraf, is a military dictator

The current President and Chief of the Army, General Pervez Musharraf, is a military dictator in the Pakistani tradition who, like his predecessors, talks of Pakistan’s need for tutelage and protection from itself. He warns of threats from without and dangers from within that can only be thwarted by a strong military state. India is the danger of choice from outside, while the risk of radical fundamentalists taking power is the expressed focus of the danger from within.

Since the latest coup in 1999, Musharraf has exercised total executive and legislative control. In his own words, “At this moment what Pakistan is facing needs a unity, a unity of command over important organs of the state that includes the military, the political and the bureaucracy. A unity of command over them. The unity of authority over them. And I give that unity through maintaining the uniform.”1 He meets openly with senior officers to decide key government matters without any consultation outside the military, and makes no pretense that matters are decided otherwise.

Pakistan today is a military dictatorship as authoritarian as any in its modern history. An elected Parliament is dominated by members of a corrupt and self-perpetuating party, the PLM-Q or “King’s Party,” which came into office after the election of 2002, the results of which were fixed by the military authorities. Parliament plays little part in lawmaking and governing. The prime minister and cabinet members have no real authority. State authority is exercised regardless of laws and the constitution. Thousands of people having no association with internal or international terrorism have been killed by state militias for their political activities and beliefs, even larger numbers have been jailed or have “disappeared,” the rule of law has been ignored and the courts have been stripped of their authority.

Democratically elected leaders in the past have been accused of being equally guilty, and the so-called democratic interlude of the 1990s was problematic in a number of respects. Corruption was rampant, government was ineffective, elites monopolized power and political intimidation was far too common. However, great care must be taken in claiming moral equivalence with the years since. While it is neither within the scope nor the point of this article to make a detailed comparison of the two periods, there is little in the earlier period to compare with the abuses of human rights and life, limb and property under the current regime.

Rule by elites

Elite competition and control have represented a longstanding problem in Pakistan and a major factor in the perversity of the country’s politics. Following independence in 1947, Pakistan had no developed political institutions. It immediately came under the control of elites that included wealthy industrialists and middle-class professionals emigrating from India, bureaucrats and feudal landowners from the Raj and army officers. Migrants from India moved en masse to West Pakistan, where the elites grouped, and the economy became concentrated in the hands of 22 Muslim families, mostly migrants from India. These families remained part of the power clique that either ruled or contested for power in Pakistan until the end of the last century. Bengalis, concentrated in East Pakistan and representing more than half the population, were considered unworthy of any real role in government and were largely left out. Punjabis, who made up a large trading and small business class in the west before independence, were relegated to secondary roles, and Pashtuns from the northwest frontier and Afghan border area and Baluch from the west were mistrusted and suspected of being disloyal.

This set a pattern for the governing arrangements for a decade after independence. Elections were constantly postponed, a constitutional process was paralyzed for many years and state power became the preserve of self-serving elites who neither wanted nor could risk democracy. Government became corrupt, incompetent and paralyzed. Only the army could force a solution, and General Ayub Khan seized control in 1958. He and the army leaders took over the instruments of power, operating in collaboration with Punjabis who had been largely excluded from the elites of the preceding period.

The regime considered East Pakistan of secondary importance, impossible to defend and a potential weakness. It believed that the dominance and defence of West Pakistan was the highest priority. The inevitable secession of East Pakistan in 1971 led to a loss of 53 per cent of the population and to a much-reduced Pakistan dominated by Punjab. The military was totally discredited, and to this day the whole affair has left a scar of insecurity and a fear of regional unrest. The army was replaced by a civilian leadership under the most popular and charismatic leader in Pakistan’s history, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Unfortunately, Bhutto pursued the tradition of South Asian socialism established by Nehru, and the economy performed poorly over the 1970s. Furthermore, his government presided over numerous factional and regional conflicts, not all of which were his responsibility. The result was to create a new opening for the army: in 1977 the army commander Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took power and Bhutto was eventually murdered by the government. A new liberal constitution developed under Bhutto and then virtually ignored by him was voided, and an army-directed reconstruction of Pakistan began.

Pakistan redefined

These events were a turning point in Pakistan’s development. This time the army was intent on redefining Pakistan in ways that would address what it perceived as weaknesses and threats. The pattern of changes that followed 1977 has been long-lasting and in many ways permanent. The army regained the confidence it had lost after the defeat in Bengal. The prevention of further secession and dissolution became an obsession. Hatred and fear of India were used to justify many things, including a strong centralized armed state. The Soviet Union was an additional threat and an ally of India, and thus a close relationship with the United States was essential.

Politics and elected governments were blamed for much that was wrong with Pakistan and political parties were demonized. Never again would the army let itself be overwhelmed by a popular elected government as it had been by Bhutto. From then on, the army was to provide the essential discipline needed at the centre of the state and was to be the unifying force in Pakistani society. Traditionally a force for secularism, the army henceforth promoted Islam as the dominant belief system in the country. Islam was thus elevated to a state ideology. All institutions, including the constitution and the army itself, were systematically Islamicized, with immense long-term consequences.

Two external conflicts were given overriding attention: Kashmir and Afghanistan. Kashmir involved a longstanding grievance with India, the much hated and feared enduring enemy and threat. Afghanistan, either as a Soviet-dominated satellite or as an independent nation, threatened the stability of Pakistan, and thus justified perpetual vigilance. It was feared that the Pashtuns in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan might ally themselves with the Afghan side and force further loss of Pakistani territory – Afghanistan has never accepted the legitimacy of its border with Pakistan, the so-called Durand line, defined by the British in the late 19th century. This fear was used to reinforce the need for vigilance toward events in Afghanistan.

Symbols of Pakistani pride

The legacies of these conflicts have been the Mujahidin, the military intelligence service (the ISI) and nuclear arms. All three are now enduring symbols of Pakistani strength and pride, and are used to unite Pakistanis behind the military’s central importance and ingenuity.

The Mujahidin, a kind of Pakistani-backed militia, were first organized to carry the fight to Indians in Kashmir and then to the Soviets in Afghanistan. The successful organization of this Islamic force fighting for the greater cause of Islam and the destruction of foreign infidels has long been seen as a key Pakistani asset.

The ISI has been essential to the organizational and logistical support of the Mujahidin, and the Mujahidin-ISI axis has assumed a central strategic role in long-term security. A result is that the intelligence service has become a powerful and much-feared element in its own right in Pakistani affairs. Major parts of the ISI are dominated by fundamentalist Islamic ideologues, and the ISI continues to provide critical support to radical extremists – including the Taliban and Al Qaeda – as it has historically in the Afghan and Kashmir struggles. Retired ISI senior officers continue to operate in murky and informal networks, and are the authors of many of the most important state decisions taken to defend the nation.

The nuclear bomb has been justified as a deterrent and a possible instrument of last resort in the Indian conflict. But there is more to it. The nuclear bomb has assumed its own independent status in Pakistan’s identity. It unites the country and acts as a symbol of Pakistan’s power and importance by assuaging a deep and continuing anxiety that Pakistan is either not as good as other countries or not respected in the world. On the ground in Pakistan, at political rallies and large public meetings, the widespread enthusiasm and admiration for Pakistan’s nuclear achievement can be seen and heard. It proves that Pakistan cannot be pushed around or overlooked in the making of important world decisions.

The truth is that Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons does make it a force to fear and be reckoned with, but the fear in the international community is much like the fear of a mad uncle in the attic who threatens to burn the house down and destroy all those living in it. A conflagration cannot be discounted, but how and when it might happen is impossible to predict. Faced with this reality, the international community has become confused and uncertain about how to handle Pakistan. The unpredictability of Pakistani politics makes an uncontrollable nuclear disaster a tangible and disquieting risk, especially given the connections between powerful state actors and fundamentalist Islamic forces.

The war on terror

Much has been written about Pakistan’s support of the Taliban and Al Qaeda as well as the intimate association between the Taliban and the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services prior to September 11, 2001. When the United States decided to invade Afghanistan and end Taliban rule, Pakistan made a commitment to join the war on terror, become a member of “the coalition of the willing” fighting Al Qaeda and discontinue its support for the Taliban. There were to be no safe havens in Pakistan, no arms for the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces and no training camps and staging areas for attacks in Afghanistan. In return, the United States and the West promised the Musharraf government that aid and military assistance would flow in prodigious amounts and that international questioning of the legitimacy of military rule would cease.

The Pakistani effort in the war against terror has turned out to be duplicitous, treacherous and malevolent. Al Qaeda and Taliban bases have been operating with considerable impunity in areas bordering Afghanistan. Taliban leaders’ homes are easily identifiable in Quetta – a city only 50 kilometres from Kandahar – but nothing has been done to disrupt their comfortable lives.

The only successful operation in Quetta against the Taliban leadership was carried out in 2006 by U.S. operatives, though the official line continues to be that no U.S. forces were present. The Taliban leadership enjoys safe haven privileges in Quetta, provided that Quetta is used only for recruiting and training and not as an actual base of operations. Young recruits in the thousands are being trained at madrassahs and camps in the area, according to reports of local residents.

Perhaps more importantly, operational Taliban bases are located in the directly governed frontier areas bordering on Afghanistan in the south. This is well known among international observers. The BBC, in a January 2007 report, confirmed that “western Pakistan has long served as a Taliban sanctuary and with last year’s ‘peace accord,’ signed between Pakistani forces and powerful Taliban-aligned tribesmen, virtually gave birth to a Taliban ministate.” Newsday reported,

Four years after the United States led the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a new Taliban movement has taken control in a swath of neighboring Pakistan. Taliban militants control much of Waziristan, a rocky, mountainous area twice the size of Long Island along the Pakistani border. Despite a heavy presence of Pakistani troops, Waziristan has become the largest and most protected sanctuary for Islamic militant guerrillas in the “global war on terror.”2

In 2006, Musharraf entered into a peace accord with tribal leaders, withdrawing Pakistani forces and turning much of Waziristan into a territory governed and controlled by the Taliban. U.S. military and intelligence experts have concluded that this strategically important area was in fact turned over to Afghan insurgents:

U.S. military officers and Afghan officials in three neighboring provinces of Afghanistan say the infiltration of guerrillas from Waziristan has continued unabated and is the primary engine of the continued Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Waziristan “is very important to the Taliban” as a base of operations in the Afghan-Pakistani theatre, said Mike Scheuer, a former top analyst at the CIA.3

A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of July 17, 2007, stated that “we assess attack capability, including a safe haven in .”

Some commentators have suggested that Musharraf’s goal in all this is to placate the large Pashtun population in northern and western Pakistan, which might otherwise seek the breakup of Pakistan, but this is hardly credible. He and the Pakistan government fear nationalists above almost anything. The Taliban are not Pashtun nationalists. Their objective is to crush the Western infidels and to drive the West out of the Islamic world, not to form a Pashtun state. This is supported by the informed and respected Pakistani newspaper Dawn, which reported,

It would be unfair to liken the Taliban’s resistance to a Pashtun uprising. This view betrays a lack of understanding of contemporary Pashtun society. Ethnic Pashtuns they are, but the Taliban have never espoused any nationalist ideology. Theirs is not a nationalist struggle; their resistance is fired by a desire to wage “jihad and defeat the infidels.”4

Musharraf has no affinity with territorially based nationalists, and especially Pashtuns and Baluch. Al Qaeda rejects nationalist goals, thus helping it to get what it needs most from him – a territorial base out of reach of hostile forces.

Why has the West tolerated Musharraf?

The question of why the West, and especially the United States, tolerate Musharraf and support his rule in the face of his duplicity is much debated inside and outside Pakistan. In fact, the Taliban and Al Qaeda present a relatively limited threat to Musharraf as long as he does not seriously threaten their bases along the border areas. He has managed to protect himself by providing them sanctuary. There would be more of a danger to him from a stable and resurgent Afghanistan, or from a full-scale assault on the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces operating out of Pakistan. In both cases, they might then really turn on him, and threaten his hold on power.

The war on terror is not his war. The existing threat to him and his rule from Islamic extremists is minimal. He is a military dictator, not a vulnerable elected leader. His complicated formula for retaining power involves collaboration with the extremists. This involves seeking their help in convincing the West that they are to be feared and only he can manage them.

Surprisingly, the United States and the West seemed for a long time genuinely to believe that there was no actual collaboration and that Musharraf was sincere in fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The hallmarks of Musharraf’s rule – rejection of free and fair elections, endemic corruption, suppression of human rights, jailing and killing of dissidents, destruction of democratic institutions – had little impact on Westerners’ thinking as long as it was believed that he opposed Al Qaeda. Recently, however, doubts have emerged. The U.S. intelligence community now has deep reservations about Musharraf’s bona fides, and leading U.S. politicians and officials are more and more revealing their doubts.

Musharraf’s attempt to dismiss the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court turned out to be deeply unpopular and unmasked his claims to be invincible. His handling of the occupation of the Red Mosque, instead of helping him, reinforced a deep suspicion that somehow the management of the occupation was staged to reignite Western fears of Islamic fundamentalists. It also strengthened the fear that his adventurism is leading the country into chaos. His emergency powers declaration in early November 2007, accompanied again by the dismissal of the Chief Justice (along with a number of the Supreme Court’s members), has reinforced a belief that the military regime is deeply flawed, and likely unsustainable.

The Bhutto resurgence
In the middle of 2007, Benazir Bhutto proposed what is sometimes called the Chilean solution, where a military dictator and popularly elected leaders share power.

Meanwhile, over the past year or more, there has been growing popular support for the democratic parties, and especially for the PPP led by Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto’s promise to return to Pakistan for elections despite the threat of arrest and her strong stand against Islamic fundamentalism and the Taliban resonated well with the people, and inspired confidence in the West.

When Benazir Bhutto returned home in October 2007, the attempt on her life the first day back was not wholly unexpected. Violence as a political instrument has been legitimized for many groups, and in the murky miasma of Pakistani politics the attack could have been the work of any number of them. We will probably never know who is responsible, and what we are told will be believed by very few. Blaming Al Qaeda and the Taliban will serve the interests of most of the main players. Bhutto claims to have evidence that some members of the intelligence services were behind it. She is incredibly well informed through a variety of sources and so this cannot be rejected out of hand. It is also possible that the MQM, the party with a power base in Karachi whose practices are recognized as thuggery even in the extraordinarily violent world of Pakistani politics, was behind it. The MQM’s hatred of Bhutto and determination to thwart the PPP are well known, and it has control over Karachi’s streets, so it had both the motive and the means.

In early November, Musharraf declared martial law and dismissed the Supreme Court. While he attributed this step in part to the rising threat of militancy – a theme that always resonates with the West – his main motivation was to circumvent a pending Supreme Court decision invalidating his selection as president because he is still head of the army, on government payroll. Perhaps more importantly, it was a message to Bhutto and the Western governments supporting her return that he and the army still intend to call the shots, and that no erosion of their ultimate power will be tolerated.

In the middle of 2007, Benazir Bhutto proposed what is sometimes called the Chilean solution, where a military dictator and popularly elected leaders share power. Under the proposal, Musharraf would be elected president by the legislators that he put into office in the fixed elections of 2002. Popular parliamentary elections would proceed after that, with an understanding that they would not be fixed, at least not to such a degree as to prevent the most popular party from gaining a majority. Corruption charges against Bhutto and her immediate circle would be dropped, and corruption charges would be dealt with in the future as a matter of justice rather than as a sword to destroy political enemies.

One of the reasons she made this proposal is that she saw that Musharraf’s rule was unstable and that he was vulnerable to popular rejection. In this way, she was capitalizing on his weakness. She also knew that he had the continued backing of the army and the intelligence services, both of which fear Bhutto’s return to power – the army because she may chase them back to the barracks on a wave of popular support, and the intelligence services because she may actually insist that the collaboration with Islamic fundamentalism, the Taliban and Al Qaeda be brought to an end. She believed that a compromise involving the sharing of power was the only attainable solution.

The exact details of any new configuration were not completely settled when Musharraf declared martial law on November 3. In any such configuration, at a bare minimum, Musharraf would continue as president but would lose the power to dismiss the prime minister. His minimum demands included powers over the military, the intelligence services and foreign affairs. Most likely he would have retained the military and foreign intelligence, but foreign affairs and domestic intelligence were more problematic. National security was in dispute, with lots of blurring of the lines on the exact division. Bhutto was demanding most domestic social affairs, but Musharraf wanted some continued powers over the economy, in part to protect military privilege. Many other constitutional questions, like empowering the provinces, the independence of the judiciary and full restoration of the rule of law and respect for human and political rights would be left for later determination.

Some see her proposal as opportunism, legitimizing the endemic corruption in her previous term as prime minister, and creating a new opportunity for her discredited supporters to capture a share of the spoils. However, in the face of recent harsh realities, it is incumbent on such critics to suggest a better alternative. The state murders, disappearances, repression, suppression of dissidents, destruction of the rule of law and the judiciary and cynical support of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have destroyed the current regime’s legitimacy. Any effort it now makes to confront the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in a meaningful way lacks credibility in Pakistan, and is suspect in the international community.

When Benazir Bhutto returned home in October 2007, the attempt on her life the first day back was not wholly unexpected. Violence as a political instrument has been legitimized for many groups, and in the murky miasma of Pakistani politics the attack could have been the work of any number of them.

Because there is so little trust, Bhutto called on the United States and the West to guarantee the arrangement, and this was essentially provided. Bhutto’s greatest fear was that after being chosen president by the tainted parliament and provincial legislatures, as was agreed to, Musharraf would refuse to permit free and fair elections in early 2008. The fact that he proceeded with martial law after being chosen president sent a clear message to the United States and the West that he did not consider himself bound by any guarantees they had provided to Bhutto.

What happens next?

Pakistani politics are notoriously treacherous. It is risky to make any predictions about how things are going to unfold. At the time of writing, Musharraf’s emergency powers declaration was just a few days old. Mainstream political leaders were being arrested in large numbers. The Supreme Court had been totally eviscerated as a check on the government, and the streets of the capital city, Islamabad, were occupied by troops.

Musharraf is in a desperate fight to survive. He is trying to appease the West by establishing some bona fides in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But his control over events is weakening, and his double dealing is coming unglued. There is a possibility of a dark spiral into disaster as a result of a breakdown in his murky deals and compromises with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, major losses by Pakistani forces in clashes with them, divisions in the army and a new army coup, with Musharraf replaced by a new iron-fisted ruler with ties to Islamic fundamentalism and the Taliban.

Alternatively, Bhutto could be assassinated, and chaos on the streets could follow. Musharraf would be finished for all intents and purposes, since Pakistan would be totally discredited. The limits of U.S. power and influence would certainly be tested. It could possibly go looking for another military strongman, given its difficulty in believing that democratically chosen leaders can maintain security and fight extremists. But it would insist on someone who is free of Al Qaeda–Taliban links and could be trusted with a finger on the nuclear button. If that were not successful, and a new strongman with deep Al Qaeda sympathies came to power, India’s response would be unpredictable and perhaps belligerent. Pakistan might move on Kashmir in response. Nuclear arms could come out of their protective silos and a conflagration could begin, accidentally or deliberately.

A more hopeful possibility is that there will be free and fair parliamentary elections some time in 2008, supported by the United States and the West. The PPP would almost certainly win an honest election, and Bhutto would become prime minister. A weakened Musharraf might or might not be able to stay around as president. Bhutto and the military would have to work out an uneasy alliance based on a power-sharing arrangement like the one she has proposed and a much more vigorous policy against the fundamentalist insurgents. Bhutto and the United States would both demand that the havens for the Taliban and Al Qaeda be closed and reoccupied by Pakistan. The military leadership would be forced to go along, even though the army and the intelligence services would continue to collaborate with Islamic fundamentalists. This could ultimately lead to an internal crisis in the government, with the army and the intelligence services having to be tamed to avoid another coup.

The West, and the United States in particular, will have to decide whether to side with Bhutto or the military on some of the hard questions. While the choice may appear to be between dictators and democrats, it will really be about how to stabilize Pakistan and fight the war on terror. Pakistan is at the centre of this war. As goes Pakistan, so goes the world. In a country where treachery, duplicity and self-interest have free rein, it is not easy to predict where things are going. But it appears that power-sharing, something akin to what happened in Chile after the end of the military dictatorship, is the only way out. In many respects, whether this works or not will depend on the West and the support and discipline it imposes.

Canada has a claim to a say in all of this beyond that of a normal middle-power satellite of the United States. The reason is simple: Canada’s contribution and sacrifices in Afghanistan have been immense. Many of our soldiers have been killed by Pakistani-supported insurgents who have come across the border from the safe havens that Musharraf has tolerated for far too long. Canada, along with other Western countries, supported Musharraf despite his record out of a belief that he would help in the fight against terrorism. Instead, he has supported the terrorists and at the same time governed as an autocrat. There has been no evidence that Canada has played any significant role in the reevaluation that started in 2007, even though other Western countries have asked searching questions.

Musharraf’s declining credibility and weakening position have created an opening. Given Canadian sacrifices in Afghanistan, our government has a responsibility to take the lead in demanding major changes in Pakistan. Fundamental restructuring of the government is essential. Most Canadians would hope that our democratic traditions and values and our determination to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda will anchor Canada’s position. This means taking an active role in supporting change in Pakistan: it includes supporting an arrangement like the one proposed by Bhutto, and making Canada a party to the Western guarantee needed to secure it.

Continue reading “As Pakistan Goes, So Goes the World”

The U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 seemed at the time to many in Canada, and in the Western nations generally, a welcome development. While doubts existed about the wisdom of proceeding so quickly with the use of force, United Nations approval was obtained, and the result was the removal from power of an unelected government that had shown a deplorable lack of respect for human rights and human life at home and abroad. The Taliban provided a sanctuary for terrorism against Western nations, and it treated its own people with disdain. The defeat of the Taliban was supported by a majority in Afghanistan itself, and support was widespread for a new, more democratic government that would protect basic human rights and provide stable government.

Five years later, it is hard to be so positive. The country is once more caught up in armed conflict. Hundreds of military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban government. More than 40 of these have been Canadians. The new government has proved less than successful at establishing order and at providing needed services and development. Many people in the country express fears about security; the longevity of the new democratically elected regime is in doubt.

The events of mid- and late 2006 are particularly alarming. In late May, an incident in Kabul brought thousands of armed people into the streets, and was suppressed with great difficulty and loss of life. This incident challenged the widespread assumption that Kabul is secure and supportive of the regime. There has also been intense fighting in the southern regions around Kandahar, generating new fears that a resurgent Taliban may be poised to lead a more broadly based uprising against the government. Incidents in other parts of Afghanistan also suggest that the ability of the government to impose order is in doubt over much of the country.

In Canada, the doubts and questions are particularly acute. For the first time since the Korean War, Canadian soldiers are dying on active duty in direct combat as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). While Canadian soldiers are now part of an international force, the first deaths occurred when they were fighting with the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom forces. There is concern that the ISAF effort is simply part of a misguided U.S.-led venture of doubtful origins and even more doubtful management.

Canada and the other countries involved are eager to have people believe that much more is taking place than armed conflict. An elected president and parliament, a major effort at development and reconstruction, and the creation of Afghan police and armed forces are all cited as evidence that progress is being made.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the effort to rescue Afghanistan from the Taliban and extremist terrorist forces and to establish order, security, democracy and development is in grave difficulty. Many argue that the current venture is fatally flawed and must either be abandoned or radically restructured. This view has particular salience in Canada.

I argue that abandoning Afghanistan now would be strategically wrong and morally unacceptable. While it would be easy to withdraw and leave the Afghan people to their fate, Canada has an interest in what happens that transcends the tragedy of the death of soldiers and the desire to disentangle from U.S. foreign ventures. Canada’s departure would almost certainly encourage other countries to do likewise, leaving the fate of the country in the hands of the United States. It is doubtful whether the United States has much continuing interest in the future of the country beyond that which military dominance can provide. To leave Afghanistan to the United States is not in the interests of the Afghan people or the world community. Afghanistan would most likely continue to be a pawn in the ever-growing battle between the United States and those who see the U.S. as an imperial power determined to impose its will around the world.

Canada is needed in Afghanistan. Canada has been there since the beginning of the reconstruction effort and is in a unique position to provide the leadership needed to help the country develop democratic institutions and political, social and economic stability in tune with what Afghans want.

Canada’s presence in Afghanistan

Canada has committed $1 billion in development aid to Afghanistan over ten years. This commitment originally arose out of the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which provided for an interim government, the convening of a Loya Jirga to draft a new constitution and a the creation of an independent judiciary. Under that agreement, Afghan representatives asked the international community to assist with protection of the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan; the rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction of the country; and combating terrorism and the drug trade. Canada, along with many other Western countries, agreed to help meet these requests.

Canada’s reconstruction assistance is specifically directed at responding to the needs identified by the Afghan government in its National Development Framework of 2002. This is being done through programs in support of governance, rural assistance and development, and management and administration within the central government. A Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) deployed to Kandahar in the summer of 2005 is intended to work to stabilize the Kandahar region and support development efforts. The team works together with military forces in an attempt to ensure that development and security are integrated into a common effort. Canada’s main commitment is to assign a Canadian development officer to administer a Security Sector Reform Fund, leverage other development efforts and support the delivery of national programs in the region. The killing by the Taliban of the first person appointed is a tragic reminder of this commitment.

Canada was also the sole donor for the National Priority Programmes Co-ordination Unit within the government of Afghanistan from mid-2005 to mid-2006. Its role was to help the government direct its resources and programs into the provinces with the greatest strategic reach and impact and extend central government control and activity to rural Afghanistan.

And of course Canada has a major military presence in the country, about 2,500 soldiers. The decision to commit Canadian troops was made by the Liberal government in late 2001. While Canadian forces were first mobilized in small numbers in support of the U.S. invasion forces, a much larger commitment came when Canada decided to be part of the International Security Assistance Force, which from August 2003 to November 2005 assumed a presence in the Kabul area, focusing on helping the international community maintain a safe and secure environment in and around the capital. Ottawa defended this commitment as consistent with participation in multilateral peacekeeping, as an effort to ensure peace and security in the country. It was also linked to reconstruction efforts in which Canada works with the international community to rebuild the country after years of war and internal fighting. Not a lot was said about the military forces also being there to prevent the Taliban from reestablishing a presence in the country, in part because it was believed that the Taliban were a spent force.

The current situation in Afghanistan

Much has been written and said about the current situation in Afghanistan. Much of it is discouraging and most of it is true. The most salient features of the current situation can be summarized as follows:

  • The economy is dismal: Unemployment is reported to be about 40 per cent, and the real figure is likely higher. Private-sector foreign investment is negligible, and there is little internally generated capital and savings. The market aptitudes and skills of people are evident on the streets and roads where hundreds of stalls provide a wide range of merchandise and food products, but significant economic opportunities are very limited. What is obvious is pervasive poverty, and little is being done for ordinary people to escape it.
  • Public services remain generally primitive or nonexistent: Sewage and water systems do not exist except in some privileged areas. Clean, safe water is a luxury. Electricity is virtually unknown in most of the country. In Kabul, a city of more than five million people, electricity is available for a few hours per day at best, and in many areas it is every second day or less. Police forces are inept and unreliable. The effort to build a new competent system of policing has made slow progress, even though this was given a high priority. Many of the top officers are previous warlords, drug dealers and smugglers. While some roads and streets have been built, particularly main thoroughfares and those with a high profile (the Kabul-Kandahar highway is now a first-class highway, but traffic is minimal because of the security problems in the south), most streets and secondary roads are in severe disrepair.
  • Basic housing is in short supply: This is particularly evident in Kabul, where it is estimated that well over a million people have no housing. More than a million returning refugees have settled in Kabul in squalid conditions. Many of these people were expected to return to their rural areas where they previously lived, but this has not happened. An even greater number of people are living in abysmal hovels.
  • While the education system has made some advances, a high proportion of young people still do not go to school: There are simply not enough schools and teachers. The quality of education is generally poor, with senior posts in the sector often filled by people from the Communist and pre-Communist periods. There has been considerable progress, particularly in urban areas, in opening up schools for girls. However, the government is beginning to yield to Islamic fundamentalists demanding that girls be excluded from schools, and there is a real fear that the number of girls in school will drop.
  • Elections for the new institutions of government have been only partially successful: The presidential election in 2004 went well, with good voter turnout and few problems. The parliamentary elections had a lower turnout but few problems in actual voting. Approximately 12 million people were eligible to vote, of whom about 6 million did. Elections were for both the 249-seat lower house (the Wolesi Jirga) and the 34 provincial councils, which elect one third of the members of the upper house. There were 2,707 candidates for the lower house: 328 women and 2,379 men. Women were guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats and won 28 per cent, six more than the minimum. All candidates ran as independents, since parties and lists were not permitted, and voting was by single nontransferable vote (SNTV) in multimember constituencies, meaning that each voter votes for only one candidate. With so many candidates, no parties and SNTV, there was little to distinguish between candidates. Votes were widely dispersed; voting results were almost random in some cases and in others were manipulated by well-organized candidates who understood that a small proportion of votes was enough to win. Former warlords and their adherents gained a large proportion of the seats in both the lower house and provincial councils. Fragmented voting and the ability to win a seat with a low proportion of total votes has meant that many elected MPs are not considered credible representatives – and in many cases are considered illegitimate criminals. The parliament has nevertheless been working hard to get organized, and to date has displayed a remarkable flair and enthusiasm for democracy in its internal workings. It has elected officers, passed a budget and approved cabinet and supreme court appointments after much debate and voting. However, the absence of parties has meant that proceedings are very time-consuming, and it is likely that this will create great difficulties when the parliament turns to considering legislation.
  • The executive government under President Karzai has generally functioned poorly: There are many reasons for this. There is virtually no professional public service. Karzai himself is not a good manager, and displays considerable insecurity regarding his political situation. To shore up his position he has appointed numerous warlords and drug dealers to positions of leadership, including cabinet posts. Corruption is widespread. There is very little trust in the government, even though the vast majority of people hope that it will work. The government has very little revenue. Its total budget is just $500 million – less than that of Yukon with 30,000 people. There is virtually no tax base because of the wreckage of the economy, and little means to collect taxes. The overall result is that the government is delivering very little to the people in terms of services, and its credibility is declining as time passes. Karzai is struggling to retain some vestige of power and support, but to more and more people he appears barely competent and largely impotent. As his position becomes more tenuous, he is reverting to many of the old ways of brokering to shore up popularity. He is increasingly dependent on warlords and other questionable characters. He has started to play to fundamentalist sentiment, for instance by reinstating the Ministry of Virtue and Vice. He is desperately dependent on the United States, which in turn seems to see him as the only leader whom they can depend on to satisfy their interests. Rather than insisting on good, reasonably honest government, the United States is now accommodating practices it would elsewhere consider abhorrent. The government appears to be in the early throes of a downward spiral to failure – unless clear and desperate measures are taken soon.
  •  An insurgency, led by Taliban and former Taliban dissidents and fuelled by popular discontent, is gathering momentum: These insurgents had virtually no credibility or support four years ago. However, they have been continuously financed and supported by a murky collection of actors intent on reversing the political situation in the country and reestablishing an anti-American, anti-Western state that will provide a base for various forms of jihad, terrorism and fundamentalist ideology to operate in the region and the world. There is no doubt that elements of Pakistan’s government are complicit in this effort. Many of the insurgents use border areas with Pakistan as a base, and move back and forth across the border. Money and arms also come from Pakistan and various other places, including Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states. The Taliban forces are well stocked with men from the Arab world who have joined the fight for a variety of religious and personal reasons. The Taliban today is largely an external force, but there is a real possibility that it could regain popularity if life does not improve for ordinary people.
  • International aid has in many cases been ineffectual: The reasons for this are varied. First, there has not been enough of it. Basic things like infrastructure require much more money than the donors have made available. Second, it has not been successful in capturing the “hearts and minds” of the people. Many donor countries, Canada included, have administered too much aid through contractors. As one report has eloquently summarized the situation:

Donors are rightfully proud that billions of dollars have poured into Afghanistan. But little of that international aid has filtered down to the average Afghan. In a vicious cycle, security is blamed for slow reconstruction and the failure to rebuild is said to lead to deteriorating security. A reevaluation of the reconstruction projects implemented in Afghanistan in the last five years would undoubtedly reveal mistakes. Many shortcomings might be related to a focus on shorter-term projects that the donors and Afghan government alike have tried to use to demonstrate progress to their respective constituencies – or even to each other. In other words, the emphasis thus far has not been on infrastructure but on Potemkin projects. But the infrastructure work is necessary in pursuit of long-term, state-building strategies despite its lack of immediate political benefits. Another, and more crucial, shortcoming has been a heavy reliance on foreign contractors to rebuild Afghanistan. Foreign contractors continue to boast of multimillion-dollar reconstruction projects while the average Afghan worker remains untrained and unemployed. 1

What is Canada doing in Afghanistan?

When Canada first engaged in Afghanistan, Canadians paid limited attention. As long as Canadian soldiers were not killed, there was little public or political focus on Canada’s part in the venture. That began to change when the last of the Canadian forces left Kabul and moved to Kandahar in November 2005, initially with U.S. forces and then since July 2006 as part of ISAF, which took over military responsibility in Kandahar and the southern region from the United States. This is the stronghold of the Taliban. Since that time, battles involving Canadian soldiers, including the highly publicized deaths, have become a regular part of the news cycle.

On May 17, the House of Commons voted on a motion to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan until February 2009. The motion carried by four votes. A poll of Canadians taken at that time showed support at 41 per cent and opposition at 54 per cent, with 6 per cent not sure.2 Clearly both Parliament and the country are now sharply divided on the issue of troops in Afghanistan. It is probable that a free vote in the House of Commons would have defeated the motion, as would a vote taken of Canadians in general. Prime Minister Harper engineered the vote to force the hand of the opposition parties, and to highlight the support of his party for the war effort. It was an attempt to drive a wedge between his government and the opposition parties, split the opposition and rally Canadians around the fight.

But events have not unfolded as Harper expected. Canadian participation in the Afghan conflict has become a major obstacle to improving Conservative support. Public opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Canadians are deeply troubled by Canada’s participation.

Canadians are uncertain why Canada is in Afghanistan. The doubts are in part rooted in Canadian views about the legitimate use of our forces in the world. Of particular importance is the distinction between peacekeeping and active combat. Canadians generally view peacekeeping as a good thing, part of a tradition of support for peace and multilateralism that Canadian governments have nurtured since the 1950s. Canadian peacekeeping forces are to reinforce and stabilize political settlements that have been brokered by the international community, preferably through the United Nations. The United Nations umbrella is important because the use of force is then based on the rule of law rather than the unilateral exercise of power.

A justification for Canada’s military role that might convince Canadians is thus that it is an exercise in peacekeeping. In this case involvement has been backed up by UN resolutions, and Canada is part of an international presence. The overall objective of the international effort is to support stable democratic government, security, reconstruction and development and to promote human and democratic rights, women’s equality and universal education.

It is the facts on the ground that are the problem. Most Canadians do not accept this as an exercise in peacekeeping. Peacekeepers don’t seek out parties to the conflict to kill their soldiers and defeat them in battle, as is the case with the fight against the Taliban. This is not peacekeeping as it is known and understood by experts and citizens alike. Like it or not, Canada is continuing the war against the forces that the United States defeated in 2001.

One possible way around this difficulty is to redefine the exercise as peacemaking. But what exactly is peacemaking, in keeping with international norms and legitimacy? In 1992 Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Secretary General of the United Nations, stated that peacemaking is “action to bring hostile parties to agreement, essentially through such peaceful means as those foreseen in Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations: Pacific Settlement of Disputes.”3 This chapter refers largely to diplomatic efforts where representative political institutions are engaged in processes of negotiation and reconciliation. In sum, Canadian intervention in the Afghan civil war cannot be redefined as peacemaking.

The focus of peacemaking is on conflict between claimants to a political role, on reconciling them in a way that realizes some form of accommodation. Not surprisingly, peacemaking is largely a means of addressing inter-nation conflicts, which is of course very much the focus of the United Nations and international law. While the concept perhaps has enough flexibility to encompass internal conflicts in which there are challenges to the legitimacy of the established government, the parties need to be open to some form of accommodation. In the case of the government of Afghanistan, its only interest is in defeating the Taliban. The Canadian and other forces are there to support them in that objective. At present the situation is symmetrical, in that the Taliban are intent on defeating the government, the Americans and their allies, including Canadians. The Afghan situation does not lend itself to peacemaking.

Attempts to justify the Canadian presence through international conventions and practices associated with peace are largely futile. They risk becoming simply semantic games. The simple fact is that the Canadian military is in Afghanistan in a highly partisan role, at least so far as the main military threat is concerned. The Canadian military is there to make Afghanistan and its government safe from the Taliban and other insurgents. By common agreement, this is the necessary prelude to democratic governance, security, reconstruction and development.

In this sense those who suggest that Canada should withdraw its military have a point. If we are neither peacekeepers nor peacemakers, the moral foundations for what we are doing are open to legitimate challenge. This is essentially what Jack Layton and the NDP argue. Layton has concluded that either Canada should withdraw or the Taliban should be brought into negotiations to resolve the differences and to make some kind of peace to which the Taliban could be a party.

The intellectual clarity of the NDP position has not been acknowledged as fully as it should in the political debate. The NDP is correct in arguing that Canada cannot justify its presence on the basis of either peacekeeping or peacemaking.

Should Canada withdraw its troops?

However, peacekeeping and peacemaking are not the only possible moral justifications for the presence of Canadian troops. There are other ways to frame the moral case. Many, including obviously the United States, consider the Taliban to be a legitimate military target for the simple reason that they are a threat to U.S. and Western security. When it was in power, the Taliban government provided shelter and protection to Al Qaeda, and the Taliban continue to support and defend terrorism directed at the United States and other Western countries, including Canada. Framed this way, every country has a right to defend itself, and preventing the Taliban from once again becoming a force in Afghanistan is thereby justified. This position enjoys international legitimacy, inasmuch as it is supported by UN resolutions.

It is hard to dispute this argument. The Taliban sees the United States as an enemy, and supports future attacks on the U.S. It is almost certain that the Taliban sees Canada in exactly the same way. The moral force of the argument may not seem as compelling to Canadians as do peacekeeping and peacemaking, but national self-defence is almost universally recognized as a legitimate reason to use military force. There is room to argue whether there is a real and present danger, but the evidence of September 11, 2001, and statements since then support the claim that the Taliban and Al Qaeda pose a real threat.

Having a defensible moral justification for Canada’s military presence doesn’t mean Canada needs to be there. Canada has a choice. The risk of Taliban success may be so low as not to warrant devoting Canadian resources, including soldiers’ lives, to the effort. Or Canada could free-ride on the work and sacrifices of others. We could leave fighting the Taliban to the United States and other willing members of the international community. There is nothing immoral about this position. Self-interest is a widely accepted motive in foreign policy, and this would simply be a case of Canada acting in its own self-interest.

Looked at in this way, the problem entails weighing Canadian benefits and costs. The main cost of withdrawal is U.S. disapproval. Withdrawal would also prevent Canada from having a say in what happens in Afghanistan.

But there are also benefits to withdrawal. First of all, it avoids a large numbers of Canadian deaths. And most Canadians do not believe that the United States places that much importance on what Canada does. Canadians who think like this have a case. The United States is no doubt pleased to find Canada taking as much responsibility as it is, and would be annoyed if Canadian troops withdrew, as it was annoyed when Canada did not participate in Iraq. But Canada-U.S. relations did not much change post-2003, and they would probably not much change if Canada withdrew from Afghanistan. If we are to stay and fight in Afghanistan, a better argument is needed to convince Canadians.

A better argument does exist. It can be argued that it is both morally right and in Canada’s interest to be there, based on the needs of Canada, the world community and Afghans. There are many international conflicts today that threaten instability and disruption. These conflicts are part of the reality of living in a complex world. The real questions are about the impact of the conflicts and how best to resolve them. Canada is a member of the international community. It is affected by these conflicts and can in turn have an impact on how they are resolved. Canada’s status in the world means that impact can be unique and positive. The results of engagement may not only serve Canada’s interests, but also bring about a better outcome for the Afghan people.

In the Cold War era, Canada’s ability to influence the outcomes of conflicts was limited. Superpower interests inevitably dominated most conflicts. Canada’s status as a satellite of the United States further constrained its room for manoeuvre. The best option for Canada was generally not to engage. A limited Canadian role in support of conflict resolution and peacekeeping at times served the purposes of the superpowers, and Canada wisely carved out a place for itself in such processes. This had the collateral benefit of permitting Canada to develop a reputation in the world as a supporter of peace, and of having Canadians come to see foreign policy as an endeavour carried out on a higher moral plane than the mere pursuit of self-interest.

In the post–Cold War era, conflicts have taken on a different character. The United States is the only superpower. It has to some degree adopted the role of world police, using mediation, threats and force to remove conflicts and challenges to U.S. national security. But these recent challenges are not nearly as substantial as the ones that arose in the days when the United States and the Soviet Union threatened each other with annihilation. Contrary to much popular opinion, the United States has become less invested in many of the conflicts in which it takes an interest. A pattern is developing in which the United States is generally interested in taking out the immediate source of the conflict and less so in rebuilding societies inevitably damaged by the conflict. This can lead to costly mistakes, as in the case of Iraq. It can also lead to a growing neglect of what is needed to restore damaged societies.

Afghanistan is just such a case. Despite many promises, the U.S. reconstruction and development effort has been dismally inadequate. It is difficult to believe that so little has been done after all the grand promises the United States made to build a new and prosperous democratic society in the wake of the Taliban. But the results speak for themselves. The failures have been many-faceted. The wind-down of the U.S. presence has been much more rapid than the security situation allows. The United States has not done nearly enough to pressure the new government to distance itself from warlords, drug barons and mujahidin as sources of support. The restoration of public infrastructure has been too little too late. Private investment in commercial ventures has been virtually nonexistent.

Can Canada make a difference?

Ironically, the failures of the United States provide an opportunity for Canada and other donor countries to establish their presence and influence in setting the direction and pace of development for the better. Military action is an essential component of what is needed. Virtually all Afghan leaders and observers agree that development and reconstruction are one side of a coin, the other side of which is security and safety. The Taliban and its supporters are betting that if security and safety are undermined, development and reconstruction will fail. The issue is not so much the Taliban as such: it is ensuring the necessary conditions for people to live, work, travel and study without fear of attack from hostile forces. Security forces must be accompanied by meaningful development; otherwise there is no real case for the forces being there. And without security forces, there is no real case for supporting development. The ISAF commander, Lieutenant-General David Richards, has emphasized the urgency of the situation. As Radio Free Europe reported:

warned on October 8 that without visible improvements in the daily lives of ordinary Afghans in the next six months, up to 70 per cent of Afghans could shift their allegiance to the Taliban-led insurgency. “The next six months have to be used for effective reconstruction and development to ensure” the continuing support that the Afghan government enjoys among citizens. But Richards added ominously that he knows that “ISAF cannot take the support of ordinary Afghans for granted.” Richards pledged that having “shown skill and power in combat,” NATO is “now putting equal effort into supporting the reconstruction and development that will improve lives and offer a real future to all.”

Richards’ warning is a very real one for Afghanistan. The crux of the matter arguably is not whether Afghans will support the resurgent neo-Taliban, but whether – in the absence of a genuine improvement of their daily lives – they care to support the current system. The operative word is “genuine.”4

The most important moral question is not whether our troops should stay. Rather, it is whether there is a willingness on Canada’s part to ensure a genuine improvement in the economy, public services, poverty reduction and governance. If there is not, keeping troops there is pointless. If there is, keeping troops there is essential.

Canada’s choice is perhaps as important as that of any country currently involved. Canada has made a proportionately large commitment to date, and is respected enough by all of the major players to have a huge impact on what happens next. If Canada cuts and runs, many others will follow. If Canada simply supports the status quo, and does what it has in the past on the reconstruction and development front, others will do the same. In either of these two options, Afghans will be left with broken promises, the cruel fate of a resurgent Taliban and an unreliable United States likely to offer little long-term help.

Canada is not immune from the criticisms directed at the international community as a whole regarding its development and reconstruction programs. It must reform its own practices and approaches along with the other donors. The money it has committed needs to flow more quickly and efficiently. The reliance on contractors and agencies must be reduced, and the capacity to get the job done must become the number one priority.

If Canada takes the lead, and demands that others do the same, there is a real possibility that Afghans will get the chance to shape their own lives and live in security with hope of a better economic future. But time has virtually run out. Change is urgently needed, and leadership is essential. It is time for Canada and Canadians to step up, not back.

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